North Georgia farm fined $85K for wastewater spill, fish kill

Industrial waste to be used as fertilizer leaked from Wilkes County farm pond, state officials say
Georgia Environmental Protection Division official, Chris James, measured a dead flathead catfish found in Little River in Wilkes County. SPECIAL TO THE AJC



Georgia Environmental Protection Division official, Chris James, measured a dead flathead catfish found in Little River in Wilkes County. SPECIAL TO THE AJC

A farm in Wilkes County, southeast of Athens, was fined $85,000 this month by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) for a leak that polluted state waters with ammonia, which killed an estimated 1,700 fish.

A pond on the property of McAvoy Farms, also known as Mar-Leta Farms, leaked wastewater into a tributary of Little River in June, poisoning Redbreast sunfish, Bluegills and several species of catfish, according to an EPD fish kill report. The wastewater had been accepted by the farm as a fertilizer or “soil amendment,” EPD said.

There are many types of soil amendments routinely used on farms and in household gardens across Georgia. Some improve physical characteristics of the land, such as drainage, while others provide vital nutrients for growing.

In Georgia, farmers are allowed to use industrial byproducts and sewage sludge as fertilizer, but use of such waste as a soil amendment has proven controversial because of complaints about runoff and odor. These additives or “amendments” to the soil must be licensed by the Georgia Department of Agriculture and contain a level of pollutants, pathogens and parasites below the designated state limit.

Derrick Williams, a manager for EPD’s northeastern district office, said it is common for businesses to pay a third-party waste management company to take industrial byproducts, like wastewater, to farms and pay farmers to accept it as a soil amendment.

EPD was summoned in mid-June to the Little River area near the city of Washington after dead fish were found floating in the waterway and officials determined pollutants flowed into the river from a tributary on the farm property, an EPD report said. An investigator noted water in the tributary was “dark grey/black” and “exhibited a very strong organic sewage-like smell.”

At McAvoy Farms, the soil amendment consisted of wastewater from a Purina pet food plant in Hart County and a Publix milk plant in Gwinnett County, according to an EPD consent order. Williams said farm owners Roger and David McAvoy did not respond when asked by EPD if they accepted payment for the soil amendments.

In addition to the fine, EPD’s enforcement order requires McAvoy Farms to reject any more soil amendments. Williams said the McAvoys agreed.

The McAvoys did not immediately respond to requests for comment, and neither did Purina or Publix.

Two Redbreast sunfish were found dead by Georgia Environmental Protection Division officials in Little River. SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: SPE

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Credit: SPE

As part of their consent order, EPD plans to follow up with McAvoy farms about removing soil amendments from the farm pond by Nov. 30, but has no plan to ensure they do not resume accepting soil amendments at a later date.

“I don’t have it on my schedule to do that (check up on the farm). But I would say if they did take it (soil amendments) and it started smell, we’d probably know about it pretty quick,” Williams said.

What’s considered a soil amendment is a hot button issue in rural Georgia, with some saying the usage of waste material as fertilizer degrades the quality of life for people living nearby and does not receive as much regulation as it should.

Danny Agan, a resident of Wilkes County, said he is concerned about the long-term environmental impact of waste materials being used as soil amendments.

“Last time I went to the Seed & Feed store, and I wanted to buy some fertilizer, they charged me money,” Agan said. “They didn’t pay me to take it off their hands, which tells you this stuff is just garbage. It’s toxic, and they’re looking for a way to get rid of it.”

Williams said the EPD receives numerous complaints about the odor emitted from certain soil amendments but can take no action unless the amendment is suspected to be polluting state waters.

Soil amendments primarily fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture.

In 2020, the state Legislature passed House Bill 1057, which allows local governments the ability to regulate soil amendments through zoning ordinances. A year later, state law was amended again by Senate Bill 260, limiting any buffer zones created by local governments to less than 100 feet in width.

Agan, who wrote a letter Gov. Brian Kemp imploring him to veto the bill, said 100 feet is not enough.

“The smell (of waste material) is going to waft over more than 100 feet for sure,” Agan said. “The fish kill really highlights how dangerous this stuff is.”

In the last session, lawmakers also passed HB 1150, called the Freedom to Farm bill, which limits the ability of landowners who live near farms or agricultural-related processing facilities such as slaughterhouses to sue because of noises, smells or other impingements on their property.

Frank Carl, an environmentalist and board member of the nonprofit Savannah Riverkeeper, said soil amendments when applied appropriately do not pose a threat to the environment.

Carl remains concerned about certain waste materials and industrial byproducts being passed off as soil amendments while providing no benefit to the soil.

“When soil amendments are taken from waste materials, some make good soil amendments but in many cases what we find is that they (companies) are simply getting rid of them by applying them to land,” Carl said.

“That’s really waste disposal. That’s not soil amendments.”